Extinctions of Earth Life are Accelrating Rapidly
20, 2002 Corvallis, Oregon - A study by the World Wildlife
Fund (WWF) was released this month which says that at the
current rate of extinctions in 350 mammals, birds, reptiles
and fish studied by scientists, in the middle of the 21st
century, the oceans will be empty of marine life, forests
will be gone and 25% of the world's mammal species could be
extinct. Human over-population will have polluted water everywhere.
Supporting this dire picture of the future are the following
World Wildlife Fund statistics that contrast the state of
the environment in 1970 with today:
- More than a third of the natural world
has been destroyed by expanding human civilization since 1970.
Over-fishing of the oceans has produced the collapse of the North
Atlantic cod. In 1970, there were an estimated 264,000
tons of the fish. Today, that number has dropped by 80%, down
to only 60,000 tons. That number is expected to keep
- The forest cover of our planet has shrunk by 12 percent.
Fresh water ecosystems have been reduced by 55 percent.
The world's tiger population is down 95%.
There are only about 3,000 black rhinos left.
In England, several species of songbirds have declined by 90%
WWF report places great blame on the United States of America
where average U. S. residents consume and throw away more energy
and materials than any other people on earth. The British are
second on the list of consumers. A WWF spokesperson said, "If
all the people of the world consumed natural resources at the
same rate as the average U.S. and British citizen, we would
require at least two extra planets like earth by the year 2050."
week I talked about the very sobering World Wildlife Fund report
with a prominent scientist and American citizen who has been
warning about misuse of earth resources, destruction of natural
habitats and rapidly increasing extinctions of earth life for
many years. She is Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished Professor
of Zoology and Marine Biology at Oregon State University in
Corvallis. Dr. Lubchenco received her Ph.D. from Harvard University
in 1975. She was President of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science from 19961997. She is currently
the incoming-president of the International Council for Science
invited by the United Nations to coordinate the scientific information
that will be discussed next month in Johannesburg, South Africa
at the August 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.
asked Dr. Lubchenco, in the context of her long efforts to raise
political and civilian consciousness about the precariousness
of earth life in the face of the industrial world's aggressive
spread, what her greatest concern is now in 2002.
Lubchenco, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Zoology and Wayne
and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology, Oregon State
University, Department of Zoology, Corvallis, Oregon:
biggest concerns are that we are in fact losing species and habitats
at increasing rates, but that we don't really appreciate the magnitude
of what is happening. I'm a marine ecologist and I work with ocean
critters and much of what we are seeing in oceans are very dramatic
declines and very few people are aware of the magnitude of the loss
in oceans. Currently, less than a quarter of 1% of the surface area
of oceans is set aside in any kind of protected status.
we live in a world where people fight over the right to fish in
various waters, how are we going to get international agreements
that are respected to slow down the over-fishing?
is going to be a major, major battle. There is no doubt about it.
As people have selectively removed a lot of the top predators in
ocean ecosystems: Those would be the sharks, the blue fin tuna,
the salmon, the very high carnivorous species that are at the top
of the food web. In the process of removing those, we scientists
think there have been some very significant changes to ocean food
webs in a way that has collapsed and many of the collapsing fisheries
we are seeing around the world are likely to be a result of some
of those changes.
fact, sharks and the beluga sturgeon are facing extinction in the
next ten years, I believe.
have been massively over-fished.
they go - and when we say extinction, we mean the end of that species.
Extinction is forever. If the sharks are facing extinctions, if
we see a lot of large marine creatures literally disappear off the
face of the earth in the next ten years, what is the worst case
that could happen in the oceans?
don't have to lose every last individual of a species to see the
system begin to collapse and we are already seeing it beginning
to collapse. We are already seeing collapsed ocean ecosystems because
we have removed so many of the top predators.
is also recent information that a whole host of new diseases in
corals and other marine critters are appearing where we had no record
of them prior to very recent times. In many coral reef habitats,
and this is in tropics on hard bottom areas throughout the world,
in many of those places there are very serious other threats such
as significant over-fishing, pollution from the landboth raw
sewage as well as fertilizer runoff from adjacent areasdestruction
of mangroves which trap sediments and keep sediments from flowing
onto coral reefs. The destruction of mangroves is a very serious
contributor to loss of coral reefs. So, coral reefs are particularly
threatened because there are so many different factors, all of which
are hitting them at the same time. We are seeing some very serious
loss of biological diversity and collapse of coral reef ecosystems
around the world and it is very, very serious.
happens to the species in the oceans that are dependent upon coral
reefs? If the coral goes, does that mean we are going to accelerate
the already-pressured extinction rates on marine animals?
Many of the species that live in and around coral reefs, live only
there. So if the reef is destroyed, if the corals are eliminated,
then in fact that wipes out the homes and habitats of a whole host
of other species. This is another example of the interconnectedness
of species and how you can have a loss of a few key ones that trigger
serious losses throughout the whole system.
it true that the polar bear might be facing extinction in this decade
because it is losing so much of the ice territory it has depended
upon as ice melts so rapidly in global warming?
It is my understanding that polar bears are very seriously threatened
right now because of the losses of the ice that they depend on to
forage for their foods. The reports I have seen is that they are
very seriously emaciated and in very serious trouble.
is hard to imagine this planet without the polar bear.
becomes a metaphor for everything we are talking about.
think it does, indeed. That's absolutely right.
you gather with your scientist colleagues, each of you has a different
facet of what is happening on the planet. I would assume the mood
now is one that is quite depressed?
many scientific meetingsespecially involving scientists who
are dealing with environmental issuesare very depressing because
most of the news is not very good news. People who have studied
systems for a long period of time are seeing very dramatic changes.
They report those and share those and so there is very serious concern
about the future and a tremendous amount of frustration and an increased
willingness to step outside the ivory tower of academia and to share
more widely with citizens and policy makers what is happening, because
it is so serious and the changes are so dramatic and are happening
so rapidly. There is a strong desire on the part of many scientists
to help others understand what they are seeing and to be as concerned
as they are.
it fair to say that most scientists question whether the earth has
a sustainable future?
not sure that all scientists would say that. Scientists that are
field scientists who have seen very dramatic changes, scientists
who work on various aspects of environmental issues are by and large
very seriously concerned about the unsustainable trajectory that
we are currently on. The National Academy of Sciences in the United
States has been championing a whole new focus for science called
Sustainability Science. The report the Academy issued, which is
entitled "Our Common Journey," says in no uncertain terms that the
earth is on an unsustainable trajectory because of the broad sweep
of human activities that are massively modifying the whole life
support system of the planet. That includes loss of species as well
as global warming, not to mention a whole host of other things,
and it points to the fact that not only are we on an unsustainable
trajectory now, but given the fact that there are an increased number
of people on the planet.
started this century with 6 billion and by the end of this century,
it's likely to be on the order of 9 to 10 billion people. We currently
are not providing adequate food and clean drinking water, even basic
necessities, for a good fraction of the human population. The ways
in which we are doing, providing food and drinking water, are resulting
in species extinction, are resulting in increased global warmingthe
way we are creating our energyso the challenges of not only
providing the basic necessities to all people down the road, but
at the same time protecting and restoring the ecosystems of the
planet that provide our life support systems is an immense challenge.
The reality is that we don't really know how to do it. We know that
what we are doing is not working. We know that we need to use more,
to switch away from fossil fuels, for example. We know that we need
to significantly reduce the waste we are generating. We need to
use resources much more efficiently, but there are some huge scientific
challenges to figure out how to make that transition to sustainability.
time is very short! We don't have the luxury of being able to study
this thing to death. We really need to begin to implement some major
changes in the way we go about our daily business in a way that
is going to allow us to have a future that has any kind of quality
even the National Academy of Sciences is saying that the future
is not sustainable in the current path that we are on, why wouldn't
addressing the environmental problems jump up to number one in this
can't answer that. It's a very good question.
it perhaps already too late to change this boat and turn it around?
don't think we have a choice but to try. It's not clear when it
will be too late. It's clear that we have already lost a lot of
options. And one of the biggest arguments for moving quickly instead
of delaying things is that we are likely to have more options the
faster we are moving.
oceans, we have seen that when you create a marine reserve, even
in an area that was seriously degraded, it can come back. So in
many situations, there is probably a good reason to believe that
we can do a fair amount of recovery and that it is worth doing.
And sooner is undoubtedly better.
people are worried about jobs and health care and retirement now,
those could only become worse if the world in the next twenty to
thirty years begins to fight over water, land and food.
© 2002 Linda Moulton Howe All Rights Reserved. Republication and
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